US government makes free COVID-19 tests available

Today Americans can order four free COVID-19 at-home antigen tests at COVIDtests.gov, 1 month after President Joe Biden said he was securing 500 million free tests for Americans.

Last week, amid the growing surge in cases caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, Biden doubled the number of tests to be made available, to 1 billion.

The tests will be sent via the US mail and should arrive within 7 to 12 days, according to the website. Over the weekend, people with private health insurance were also able to begin submitting reimbursements for up to eight COVID-19 tests per month that are bought at pharmacies.

The efforts come as cases in many Northeastern cities appear to be plateauing or decreasing after a month of record daily case counts. In the last week, new cases have dropped by 17% in New York City, 17.6% in New Jersey, 22% in Vermont, and 25% in Washington, DC, ABC News reports.

Yesterday New York state recorded 22,000 positive COVID-19 cases, which is down by about 75% from the peak of 90,000 cases less than 2 weeks ago.

The state's highest case count of the pandemic was 90,132 people, on Jan 7.

The United States reported 717,814 new COVID-19 cases yesterday and 1,122 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. The 7-day average of new daily cases is 723,849, with 1,716 daily deaths, according to the Washington Post tracker.

Hospitalizations high across US

But across much of the country hospitalizations are still soaring, overwhelming healthcare systems and staff.

According to the New York Times, the average number of Americans hospitalized with the coronavirus is 157,000, an increase of 54% since the beginning of the year, and daily deaths have risen to 1,900, another 54% increase in 2 weeks.

The HHS Protect Public Data Hub shows 154,335 inpatient beds in use for COVID-19 patients, while hospitals in Oklahoma City are overwhelmed by a surge in Omicron hospitalizations, with no intensive care unit or inpatient beds available, CNN reports.

In an open letter from four major healthcare systems in Oklahoma, executives write, "Soon, you or a loved one may need us for life-saving care, whether for a stroke, emergency appendectomy, or trauma from a car accident, and we might not be able to help. This pandemic isn't just impacting care for COVID patients."

And nursing homes in Louisiana reported nearly 1,000 new COVID-19 cases among residents in the past 2 weeks and more than 2,700 new staff cases, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune/Advocate

CDC emphasizes N95 respirators

Late last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated guidelines that rank the different levels of protection offered by various types of face coverings.

The CDC said well-fitted N95 and KN95 respirators provide the highest levels of protection against the coronavirus and removed concerns related to supply shortages for N95s. The agency said ensuring a proper mask fit, with no major gaps around the mouth or nose, was most important for protection.

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